WASHINGTON – The yearslong feud between congressional Republicans and the FBI is reaching a new level of rancor as lawmakers prepare a resolution to hold bureau director Christopher Wray in contempt of Congress.
Rep. James Comer, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has scheduled a committee vote for Thursday morning on the contempt resolution against Wray. He says the FBI has failed to comply with a lawful subpoena for an FBI record that documents an unverified tip about President Joe Biden.
The resolution to hold Wray in contempt — which would have to be approved by the full House — is just the latest broadside from Republicans against the FBI. They accuse the bureau of harboring bias against conservatives dating back to Donald Trump's presidency and allege the bureau is now stonewalling legitimate congressional oversight.
Release of the document in question, FBI officials have warned, would jeopardize the safety of the confidential human source who received the unverified tip.
What to know about the clash between Republicans and the FBI:
Comer issued a subpoena to Wray on May 3 after GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa received a whistleblower complaint. They said they were told the bureau has a document that “describes an alleged criminal scheme” involving Biden and a foreign national “relating to the exchange of money for policy decisions” when Biden was vice president.
“It has been alleged that the document includes a precise description of how the alleged criminal scheme was employed as well as its purpose,” Comer and Grassley wrote in a letter to Wray.
Both men have said they do not know if information is true, but insist the allegations warrant further investigation. The White House has accused Republicans of "floating anonymous innuendo.”
WHAT IS THE DOCUMENT IN QUESTION?
The document Republicans are focused on is what is known as an FD-1023 form, which is used by federal agents to record tips and information they receive from confidential human sources. The FBI says such documents can contain uncorroborated and incomplete information, and that the record of a tip does not validate the information.
The Biden document was written up by a longtime FBI source that both Republicans and Democrats have described as credible. In it, the source details an unverified tip received in 2020 about the business dealings of Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, in Ukraine. Hunter Biden worked on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.
At the time, then-Attorney General William Barr told reporters that he was being cautious about information coming out of Ukraine. The House impeached then-President Donald Trump in 2020 over his push for the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens.
WHY DO REPUBLICANS WANT THE RECORD?
House Republicans have used their power in the majority to aggressively investigate Joe Biden and the business dealings of Hunter Biden, including examining foreign payments and other aspects of the family’s finances. Since January, Comer has obtained thousands of pages of financial records from Biden family members through subpoenas to the Treasury Department and various financial institutions
In the contempt resolution against Wray, the Oversight Committee says foreign payments to members of the Biden family could have implications for national security. It said it needs the FBI record as it considers whether legislation is needed to fix “deficiencies” in the financial disclosure requirements that apply to presidents, vice presidents and their families.
The committee is also demanding the FBI record be provided without redactions. The form that Comer has seen contained “a significant amount of highly relevant information to the Committee’s investigation” that was blacked out, the committee said, including the names of individuals who could be called in as witnesses.
WHY IS THE FBI REFUSING TO TURN OVER THE DOCUMENT?
The bureau has pushed back Comer's threats to hold Wray in contempt and warned of grave risk to confidential human sources and the law enforcement process if the FBI record were released to the public.
“Protecting the identities and information provided by confidential human sources from unnecessary disclosure or undue influence is therefore critical not only because of safety concerns but also to avoid chilling their candor or willingness to continue reporting to the FBI,” Christopher Dunham, an acting FBI assistant director, wrote to Comer last month.
In an attempt to comply with the subpoena, FBI officials came to the Capitol on Monday to brief Comer and Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, the top Democrat on the panel, about the document. The briefing, which the bureau described as an “extraordinary accommodation,” lasted more than an hour and was conducted privately in a secure space because FBI officials said the “several-page” form contains sensitive information.
Both Raskin and Comer received a slightly redacted copy of the FD-1023 document during the briefing and were allowed to take notes on the substance of the form, though they weren't allowed to keep it.
Frank Montoya, a former FBI supervisor who specialized in counterintelligence, said he worried that giving information about law enforcement sources to Congress could set a dangerous precedent and damage the FBI's work.
“Who’s going to want to come in and tell you things if your identity can’t be protected,”, especially in high-profile investigations, he said.
Beyond that, Montoya said, distributing to Congress information that could theoretically be relevant in an ongoing investigation risks impeding it. “If I’m working on a case and you’re posting all my information online or in the newspapers or on the evening news...to make a political point — any chance I have of making that case” is at risk, Montoya said.
Comer said that the FBI briefing about the record was no substitute for providing a copy to the committee without redactions. He said he will move forward Thursday with holding Wray in contempt of Congress.
“The investigation is not dead," Comer told reporters. "This is only the beginning."
The first step in the contempt process will be holding a committee vote to send the resolution to the House floor. If the House approves that resolution and holds Wray in contempt, it would be up to the Justice Department — where Wray works — to decide whether to prosecute him.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters he would bring the contempt resolution against Wray to the floor as soon as next week.
Successful prosecutions for contempt of Congress are rare, though not unheard of. Steve Bannon, a longtime ally of former President Donald Trump, was convicted by a jury on contempt charges last year after a referral from the House Jan. 6 committee.
There's also precedent for contempt charges against senior Justice Department figures. House Republicans approved a contempt charge against then-Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012, though the U.S. attorney's office in Washington declined to bring a case.
The FBI says the contempt vote is “unwarranted” considering the bureau had “continuously demonstrated its commitment to accommodate the committee’s request,” while protecting the safety of sources and the integrity of ongoing investigations.
The White House dismissed Comer's contempt push as “another fact-free stunt” intended to “damage the President politically and get himself media attention.”